Tuesday, March 1, 2011

kelsey of arabia

My first time in Marrakech, it frightened me. It was September 2009 and Bryan and I had stayed up all night at London Luton for the flight to Marrakech. We arrived to feral cats skulking around the airport and taxi drivers to confront in my lousy French. The taxi driver turned to scold me when I began to fasten my seat belt. Trust Allah, he told me. You don't need a seat belt in Morocco. Through the anarchic traffic of donkeys, mopeds, bicycles, cars and horses, he took us to the gate of the Medina and dropped us off. We would have to walk to the hotel, he explained. No cars go in the Medina. This registered as impossible to us. But we hefted our big backpacks onto our shoulders and trekked into the maze of the Medina. In the walled old city, the streets narrow and winding and crammed with pedestrians, cyclists and stoic donkeys pulling their loads. Women passing in burkas, men in hooded djellabas. Merchants leaning out of their shops to call to us, promising the premium quality of their goods. We were helplessly lost. A boy no more than 12 came up to us. We asked where our hotel was and he insisted he take us. We followed him through the narrowing maze of the streets, the stone ceiling soon dropping over us, claustrophobia quickening my heartbeat. It was soon evident the boy didn't know where the hotel was either, and he stopped at those rounded doors recessed into the stone walls to knock and ask, again and again while my fears rose. We saw a rabble of feral cats consuming the remains of a chicken in the street. Finally we were at the door of our guesthouse, our young guide demanding payment.

When we got to our room, I fell on the bed and cried. As a traveller I'm hard to ruffle. I started traveling at 18 with a one-way ticket to Paris. I've slept on the floors of train stations and airports. I woke up once in a Dublin hostel with a drunk Englishman leering over me ("And who's little girl is this, then?"). I once checked into a Prague hotel and saw a dog fight outside my window. I worked in a homeless shelter in Ireland. At 18, I would call my Papa who would tell me, always, "Stay calm." That as long as I kept observing and thinking there was nothing I could encounter that I couldn't handle. From traveling, I learned a certain stoic calm.

But Marrakech was beyond my exhausted senses. The confusion, the claustrophobia, the aggressive approach of the Moroccans, the total otherness of it. I cried and cried and repeated I wanted to go home. I had never responded to a place with so much fear. Bryan settled down next to me and pressed me to him and calmly talked me through it. We would sleep and eat something. We'd go back out and try again. If I didn't like it we'd go to back to the airport in the morning and fly on to Paris ahead of schedule. We went up to the rooftop terrace that night, watching the smoke curl up from the grills in the Djemma el Fna, listening to the call of the prayer from the minarets. I fell asleep on the roof, my head in Bryan's lap until he gently woke me to go back to our room.

And in the morning, armed with maps from the guesthouse, a good night's sleep and a proper Moroccan breakfast (msemen slathered in butter and jam, coffee strong enough to stand your spoon up in, fresh orange juice), we fell in love with Marrakech. The ingenious charm of the hustlers, the ancient beauty of this city and its peculiar smell of mint tea and donkeys and sunbaked stone. Bryan said Morocco felt "holy." I thought so, too.

When I got off the overnight train from Tangier this morning, I shifted my bag onto my shoulders and navigated my way through the Ville Nouvelle and into the medina. I had that proper Moroccan breakfast (with two coffees) on my own. I made my way to the hostel and then into the souks, into the familiar confusion and the barrage of voices. My Andalucian tan and curly hair has the merchants stumped-- all day I've heard "Ola, guapa! Ola, hermana!" And when I ignore that, "Bonjour madame!" and then, finally, "Hello, British girl!" The women hidden in the drape of their burkas and the old men in the pointed hoods of their djellabas, the feral cats and the donkeys are still here and the Medina traffic of bikes, donkeys and mopeds is still perilous. Instead of a beautiful guesthouse room to return to with my boyfriend I have a lousy hostel room to share with three traumatized-looking Japanese students and an urn tucked away in my backpack. It's the widow's reconquest of Marrakech (and me a Kelsey of Arabia with my scarf and poor but functional French).

Though I've been confident and self-sufficient without Bryan, Marrakech seems a very different place without him. I remember our old route through the souks and the Medina beautifully. But I see the curve of a door where I stopped to snap his photo, remember his exasperation when I insisted on stopping to pet every donkey we encountered (how I pitied their sad lot then), the terrace of a cafe where I remember lingering over tea and pastries with him and it hurts, it hurts. I thought of Marrakech as ours. As it becomes mine it seems a lesser, duller place, even though the same snake charmers practice their arts in the square and the muezzin calls the same haunting prayer.


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey with me. I am awed by your bravery and sense of adventure.

  2. I got lost lost in the Medina in Casa Blanca looking for material for a jacket. A real labyrinth. Hopelessly lost I went into a cafe where Hendix was playing on the juke box. A bunch of local guys were smoking keif. They passed and I puffed. I stumbled out stoned and walked right out of the Medina stopping long enough to buy a few yards of material.